Much of the ethics debate over cloning is and has always been pure “ick factor” confusion. Cloning is strange and unnatural, and to many people, that means it is immoral and wrong, as in, “If God had wanted us to be created from nose hairs, he wouldn’t have given us sex organs!” But there is nothing intrinsically unethical about cloning. The problem is that there are many theoretical applications of cloning that are monstrous (See: “The Island”), and too many scientists whose attitude is, “Why not?”
It is difficult to imagine a more perfect example of this than the news that Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church is plotting to create a Neanderthal human, if he can find, in his words, “an adventurous female human” willing to be Mommy to Alley Oop.
The Neanderthal branch of the human ancestor tree fell off 33,000 years ago, but Church claims that his analysis of Neanderthal genetic code using samples from their bones is complete enough to reconstruct their DNA. He would, a la Jurassic Park, and we all know how well THAT turned out) artificially create new Neanderthal DNA using the genetic code found in fossil remains, then inject it into stem cells. These would be injected into cells from a human embryo. He believes that the altered stem cells will program the development of the hybrid embryo to become a Neanderthal, and not a modern human.
It is possible, despite the over-heated media reports, that the good professor was just talking hypothetically, and will not soon be shoutiing, “It’s ALIVE!” with his eyes ablaze. There’s nothing unethical about that, except that it hasn’t been reported that he uttered the key words, “But of course that would be wrong.” This is troubling, because his plan, or scheme, or whatever it is, would be so undeniably unethical if it were ever executed. It is at least debatable (for some) whether altering human embryo cells to change the resulting human being into something less human is unethical (since our society has no trouble with killing human embryos, turning them into Neanderthals, human slugs or flying monkeys seems a lesser indignity), but there can be no question that creating a variant on a human being for the sole purpose of study, exhibition, or “just to see what happens” is cruelty personified, and a bulls-eye violation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, using one human life to accomplish another’s objective. This is “Frankenstein,” my friends, and any scientist or professor (or “adventurous human female”) who can’t see that fact is dangerous.
One remedy would be to require such ethically-unhinged individuals to watch the movie of “Jurassic Park”—which is actually more concerned with ethics than the book, though novelist Michael Crichton wrote both—as many times as I’ve seen it. In particular, they should be required to view the scene where “chaotician” Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, argues with the creator of the park, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and explains what is wrong with the attitude of the scientists who have cloned velociraptors and T-Rexes as theme park attractions :
John Hammond: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Neanderthals were beaten and driven to extinction by our superior ancestors, and now Church wants to bring that defeated and handicapped species back into a world it is not equipped to cope with because we can, and because it would be cool. Never mind the Jurassic Park scenario, or even “Planet of the Apes.” The ethical problem with Professor Church’s idea isn’t that it might go horribly wrong.
It is that it might be successful.
UPDATE: Church now says he was misquoted due to poor translation. Maybe. And Maybe Harvard told him he was embarrassing the University, and to start spinning. “I was mistranslated is even better than the old stand-by, “I was taken out of context,” because it’s impossible to check. The ethical issue isn’t altered one way or the other.
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